There’s enough to worry about, still – the existence of an operational dystopia in the here-and-now is certainly enough to turn your head. Secret police, subjugation of women to an extreme and unaccountable religious order, alas, all of these boxes and more are waiting to be checked in today’s Saudi Arabia, as terrifyingly and effectively described in Manal-al-Sharif’s memoir Daring to Drive: A Saudi Woman’s Awakening. But al-Sharif’s story is one of empowerment, of insight, of change from within leading to change in this world. Ultimately, it is more hopeful than harrowing.
The story begins in media res, as our heroine is preparing to be arrested in a surreal scene that will feel familiar to readers of Franz Kafka. Men in suits, not uniforms, come to take her away to one unnamed destination after another. It’s the 20th and 21st century nightmare brought to life. But this dark dream, and those that follow, are the middle, not the beginning and not the end of the story. The real power in this book, as uplifting as the social movements it has inspired, is to be found in Manal al-Sharif’s journey, her character arc. The true hope is that change can come from within, because even in the worst circumstances, good people can find ways to become better.
Manal al-Sharif describes her upbringing in the strictest Islamic traditions with a clarity that was clearly not part of the experience. Her family was poor, and very religious. But no matter how dark her experience was, her writing infuses it with a vigor and knowledge that keeps the book gripping and relevant, vibrant even, with the understanding that what is being described is in the past. At first, as a child, al-Sharif hews to her society’s already extreme norms. But as a rebellious teenager, she becomes even more extremely fundamentalist. Soon enough, we find our heroine hectoring her parents for any variance outside the strictest interpretations of Islamic scripture. We, as readers, watch her become the sort of believer we might assume to be, for want of a better word, “incurable.”
But al-Sharif is accomplished and intelligent, and as she grows and scores top ranks in school, she begins to question her own beliefs. These are powerful moments, core to the book, and moments of hope and change for the reader. It does not take the story long to ramp up to an astonishing escape velocity. Before our eyes, Manal al-Sharif becomes not only an enlightened individual, she becomes a catalyst for change in her society writ large. If you long to feel the triumph of your characters as you read, this is your book. Living up to its title, it’s a true heroine’s story. Moreover it can be replicated.
Speaking with Manal al-Sharif was both daunting and an honor. She’s an icon of change for thousands of women, and she’s suffered horrific life experiences that for many would fall under the descriptors of torture and mind-control. I will admit that for me, the excitement sparked by the external changes and movement brought about by Manal al-Sharif is less important than the internal changes she so clearly describes. To my mind, the internal begats the external, and the former is far more important because even in a society where change is obvious and seemingly unstoppable, it cannot happen without the cooperation of the populace. The upshot; we have to believe in our hearts. Manal al-Sharif managed the most difficult thing in the world. She changes her hearty and she may change yours.
You can hear our lightning round interview by following this link, or listen below.
You’ll hear some raw and not-always comfortable honesty if you follow this link to listen to our in-depth interview. Or, if you are in a place where you can sit slack-jawed while you are blown away by her story, just listen below.